And the oldest, too: The story’s protagonist, Georgianna “Georgie” Groves, is about to turn 70. That’s right, an entire book devoted to the story of a senior citizen. How audacious.
Shreve uses Georgie’s self-hosted birthday party as a plot device. With her three children and grandchildren gathered around the table in her Washington, D.C. home and boardinghouse, Georgie announces that she plans to take them all on a trip to the Wisconsin camp where she spent part of her childhood.
This won’t be a s’mores-and-weenie-roast kind of family vacation. Georgie has received a brief but meaningful letter from Roosevelt McCrary, the one man who can shed light on what really happened between her parents 60-some years earlier, when her mother, Josie, was strangled and her father, William, was convicted of the murder. Chapters alternate between 2008 and 1941, the year of that untimely death.
In 2008, almost nothing goes according to plan, and various family members react temperamentally to the impromptu journey: Georgie’s eldest son Nicholas, part of the Obama campaign, rages that he can’t get cell service out in the wilderness, while her teenage grandson faithfully records mishaps in a journal labeled “From the memoir of Thomas Davies (for publication).”
The biggest mishap is Georgie’s; she’s so determined to recreate the journey her parents took to arrive at Camp Minnie HaHa that she decides this large group should travel by car to Missing Lake, then canoe down the Bone River to the camp. Although everyone is reasonably fit, no one has paddling experience or any knowledge of North Country climate, topography or wildlife. Being tired and off-kilter means they are not paying enough attention to dangers, and when one of the party goes missing, it causes the kind of pain that echoes past losses.
Echoes of the past abound, especially in the stories of racism both casual and deliberate, many of them centered on the African American Roosevelt, who moved to the camp as a child when his mother, Clementine, took a job as a cook there. Other nasty-isms afflict the campers in 1941: William, born a Jew in Lithuania, accuses his wife of anti-Semitism.
It seems sadly clear to contemporary readers that Josie suffers from severe postpartum depression and perhaps more. Both William and the omniscient narrator obsess over Josie’s weight and the fact that she hasn’t returned to her pre-pregnancy shape; Georgie, likewise, is preoccupied with her image. This superficiality serves little purpose, though, other than to distract from weightier themes. It’s an odd, off-key note in what is otherwise a well-tuned mandolin of a gothic adventure.
Bethanne Patrick is the editor, most recently, of “The Books That Changed My Life: Reflections by 100 Authors, Actors, Musicians and Other Remarkable People.”
More News Tomorrow
By Susan Richards Shreve
W.W. Norton. 208 pp. $25.95